Tuesday, August 28, 2012

안녕 - In Peace

Well, the frequency of my posts clearly faded alongside my enthusiasm for living in Korea and the sense of unfamiliarity and curiosity that used to come with everyday life here. Still, as I ride a train through the tail end of Typhoon Bolaven up to Seoul where I'll stay with friends before flying home tomorrow, I feel like I should take advantage of the free wireless to write one last post.

So, after two years, what is the lasting impact that Korea has made on me? I suspect I won't really know until many more years down the road, but I can speculate. It's left me with a slow and grudgingly formed fondness for Korean food, a daring sense of culinary bravery, and about 10 more pounds than I arrived with. It's made me much more comfortable with being naked around large numbers of strangers. It's given me an amount of confidence (or perhaps just removed any cares I once had for what others think of me) that only living in a place where you will always, always stand out and be thought strange, no matter what you do, can give you. Living in Korea gave me the motivation to become fully literate in another writing system, and to learn how to speak (a shamefully small amount of) the corresponding language. The low price of Korean medical care has given me perfect vision the moment I open my eyes in the morning. And living here has given me a healthy understanding of just how little I truly understand Asian culture, and Korean culture in particular. As Socrates pointed out, the more we learn, the more we understand that we know absolutely nothing.

My eyes have been opened to the vastness of the world, to the fact that, even if I spent every single day of my life traveling, I would never get to experience (or, in all likelihood, even know of the existence of) all of the countless cultures of the countless people who populate the earth. And yet, on nearly the exact the opposite side of the world from the place I call home, I experienced so many of what I like to call "small world moments" and found so many unexpected connections spanning the globe that I never felt very far away from home.

I feel humbled and comforted by the sameness of people all over the world, yet it was the small differences that began to wear on me day to day. It's one thing to travel within a different culture and another entirely to live within one. I may have said this before, but as an expat, no matter how much you try to go with the flow and accept the differences of your host culture, some things will just never be ok. You'll find things that, given your upbringing and cultural background, will always be unacceptable to you. I found quite a few of those things in Korean culture, as I'm sure I would have found in any culture so different from my own. Is it possible that living in abroad has actually made me less tolerant and, perhaps, more prejudiced? I'm hoping it's just a symptom of the fact that it's time to go home, and perhaps it's been time for a while now.

So now what? Well, thanks to the best thing that I found (or that found me) while living in Korea, I'm off to Ireland! Not for as long as I'd hoped, but long enough to at least start getting to know Paul's family, friends, and culture better than I could through stories and Skype chats. Then, fingers crossed, I'll be settling back in DC with an excellent job to await the start of Paul's grad school courses (more crossed fingers).

The other blessing I am leaving Korea with is the set of friends I would never have met if I had not come here. They have been my second family, and I know that, no matter where I travel, I am likely to run into a familiar face. The Korean greetings that are roughly translated as "hello" and "goodbye" have deeper meaning. They are, more literally, "Are you peaceful?" and "Go/stay in peace." So that's what I wish for the friends I've met in Korea - that you have peace in your hearts, and that you stay safe until we meet again. Notice I didn't say, "I hope we meet again" – I had best be seeing every last one of you again!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Common Octopus

I've been here for a long time. Just three months shy of two full years. So long that nothing seems weird any more. Or if it does, it's the normal, everyday kind of weird that I've come to expect, and I don't give it a second thought. There is one exception, though: The Common Octopus.

Now I have no idea whether what I'm seeing is actually the species of octopus called the common octopus - in fact, I suspect it's several different species that ooze around the tanks and giant buckets along the streets of Gwangju - but they are nothing if not commonly found in this country. Octopus is about as ubiquitous in the Korean diet as chicken is on Western dinner tables. It's certainly more appealing than some of the less identifiable seafood alternatives (멍게 or 개불, for example), but it still doesn't quite sit right with me.

Let me clarify. It's not the eating of octopus that doesn't sit right. I was initiated into the Club of Grilled Octopus Lovers when I was in Greece. It's the casual way they're housed and flung around. If they could all predict the outcome of important soccer matches like Paul the Octopus, I'd understand wanting to have one nearby at all times. As it is, they just kind of freak me out.

They're creepy. The way their bodies transform from slippery solid to oozy liquid when an ajusshi grabs them by the head and yanks them from the water. The way their suckers stick to the plate as if to save their lives, even after they've been chopped up and dressed with sesame oil in a handsome 산낙지. The way I just know their scheming, super-smart, squishy little brains are planning to take over the whole of Jeollanam-do if they could just get far enough down the street before the ajumma catches them and shoves them back in her bucket. And don't even get me started on that octopi vs. octopuses debate.

But living in Korea, neither live nor cooked (or prepared, I should say, for they are commonly eaten raw) octopus can be easily avoided. They reside in street-side tanks outside the seafood restaurants on every block. They show up regularly in my school lunches. An experienced Korean market-goer knows to keep an eye out to avoid stepping on one that's attempting a grand escape. There are even octopus trucks - like ice cream trucks back home, but a whole lot ickier.

So, for all the normalcy that has settled into my bizarrely run-of-the-mill life here, I can thank the common octopus for keeping it real(ly weird) for me. Please remember I said that, octopuses, when you're building your World Domination Headquarters.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Graduation at ShinGwang

I'm sorry. We all know what for. Now let's move on.

Today was graduation day at my main school. Since high school isn't mandatory in Korea, middle school graduation is a much bigger deal here than it is back home. The parents come with bouquets of flowers whose blooms are difficult to see under all the colored lace and fabric (because the flowers themselves aren't pretty enough already?), sappy music is played as the principal hands out diplomas, some of the students cry, and others are just thrilled to get the hell out of there.

Graduation didn't mean much to me last year. I'd only been teaching for six months, and was still struggling to adapt to the culture, let alone connect with my students. My attention was still frantically focused on not doing anything wrong or stupid-looking. I obediently stood in the line of teachers while graduating 3rd graders filed past after crossing the stage, and I did exactly what the teacher in front of me did: smile, shake hands and wonder how many more students could possibly be left to congratulate. Please God, don't let me catch whatever creeping crud is going around, since I'm being required to squeeze the clammy hand of every student who walks by. Add that to the fact that I'd just gotten back to frigid Korea from a gorgeous vacation in balmy Thailand and Malaysia, and I was just not a happy camper.

Today was much different. Having taught these kids for a year and a half, I was surprised to find that I've actually grown quite fond of them. That's really saying something for a person who's never liked children (i.e. anyone under 16, including adults who act like they're under 16). I was also somewhat dismayed to realize that most of my favorite students are leaving. It was touching, though, as many of them wanted a hug rather than a handshake, looking pleasantly surprised that I was actually there to see them off. A few came into the office for pictures before they left the school. I was certainly feeling much more emotional than I'd expected to, current time of the month notwithstanding.

One more semester left before I leave my students to the next native Englishee teacher. Rising 2nd and 3rd graders, you have big shoes to fill!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Indulging my compulsive behaviors - and for a good cause!

It may seem as though my writing has fallen by the wayside these days - but it's not true! I've been writing a lot! And proofreading, and editing and having meetings, and.....

Ok, excuses, excuses. But I have taken on a new project. It went from becoming Chief Proofreader of Online Content (how's that for a title?) to Online Editor. And it happened pretty fast, but I guess that's the way of volunteer organizations, compounded by the ways of Korea.

I've always had a compulsive need to edit things. In many ways, being in Korea has made me better about it, since I can't edit all of the many, many mistakes around me. But I haven't completely let go of the urge, so it sometimes gets me into trouble, like when I try to edit the menu at a bar. They don't like that. So now I'm indulging my compulsive need to edit things in a constructive way. Enter Gwangju News Online.

GN Online is the brand new, online version of the well-established, monthly, English-language magazine here in Gwangju. We're still tweaking the site, but if you want to have a peak, it's here: www.gwangjunewsgic.com


I'm also contributing the occasional article to the print version. You can see my writing in December's issue here (scroll to the bottom to browse the magazine). My articles are on pages 20-21 and 33.

Now you can get your fix of Caity Teacher's writing, even when she's not updating her blog like a good girl.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Adventures of Caity Teacher at EIC

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in Gwangju’s own English Immersion Camp program, also known as EIC. (I will not call this “EIC Camp”, because that is redundant. “English Immersion Camp Camp.” Like “ATM Machine / Automatic Teller Machine Machine.” Not cool.) The camp is in the countryside just outside of town. A group of 30 of the “best” third-year middle school students from all over Gwangju are sent to spend five days speaking nothing but English. The camps are divided by gender, and I worked during a boys’ week. To herd these students and make sure they leave with hyper-stimulated language centers in their brains, three native Englishee teachers are brought in from various public schools to help the native Englishee teacher who is regularly in charge of the camp. That basically means that we showed up, followed the pre-determined plan, and ensured that each student was sore in both brain and body. Yes, body - they had to do pus-ups, squats or run laps if they spoke Korean. Which, during our camp, was fairly often. It’s amazing how such smart kids can be so dense sometimes.

It took about a day for the kids to get used to each other and start goofing around, but by the second day they had already established some interesting nicknames for each other: Giant Messi (the fat kid who liked soccer), Real Messi (the kid who was actually good at soccer), Grandma (something about his permed hair cut), Brother (the kid who looked older than all the rest), Monkey (take a wild guess), Super Strong Stick (use your porno-imagination), and Secret Power (another masturbation reference - go figure, they’re middle school boys). Grandma changed to American Grandma as soon as he picked up the toy shotgun. Interesting how these stereotypes can be so pervasive in the world.

Speed quiz
As with every group, there was also The Crazy Kid. That was our nickname for him, not one from the other students. The early teenage years are filled with drama for everyone, but this kid took it absolutely over the top. Everything was a crisis, and Jimmy Teacher ended up talking him down at least once each day. He was clearly extremely intelligent, but also extremely socially awkward. Personally, I went from feeling sorry for him to thinking we might be able to stem his outbursts by not paying attention to them. (Mainly because I was swiftly losing patience with him. This, friends, is why I’m not cut out to be a teacher.) But it soon became clear that wouldn’t work, and our main concern was just getting him home in one piece before he went mental with the toy shotguns. I suspect there were some legitimate emotional health problems, but in Korea, these sorts of things are routinely ignored and the sufferers very rarely receive the treatment and support that they need. Jimmy tried, bless his heart, but what can anyone really do in the space of just five days, especially when there are 29 other students to tend to?

There were many activities that filled the 60 hours of teaching time. The boys were divided into four groups - one group per teacher - to make English movies. I got the best group, who decided to do an action film. The other groups’ movies all had something to do with zombies and/or masturbation. Go figure.

Another of my favorite activities was the speed interview. Three teachers sat in the office and the students had to come in one at a time to answer as many questions as they could in the space of two minutes. And these were not normal questions that they had encountered before in their English classes. Oh no. These were the stupidest, most random questions we could think of: What’s the best name for a dragon? Why did you eat your cat? How old is your husband? Why do you hate David Teacher? Why did you steal my car? Some kids picked up on it quickly and rolled with it, coming up with some fantastic answers and even stringing some ideas along through the entire interview. One decided to answer each question as though he were the President of the U.S. Others just looked at us like we were crazy. They usually weren’t the fun kids, anyway.

Practicing for presentations
On the last full day, each student group had to present a project that they prepared on some aspect of environmentalism. I was quite impressed with their presentations. Not only was the speaking reasonably good, during the Q&A at the end of each presentation the students asked and answered some excellent questions. They were clearly thinking deeply about the subjects, and were able to express themselves in English, a language so radically different from their own. All this at the age of 15. I’m not sure I could’ve done as well when I was in middle school! It was inspiring to see Korea’s next generation honing their critical thinking skills. The Korean economy has skyrocketed in the past 50 years, and in many ways its society has struggled just to embrace their new prosperity and the vastly different lifestyle it has brought. It’s hard to fathom the drastic change that has taken place here in such a short period of time. And social constructs always lag behind progress in any society, so it’s encouraging to see this generation progressing so rapidly. Despite their goofing off, whining, obsession with masturbation and occasional denseness (i.e. being teenagers), these kids really are the the leaders of Korea’s future.

All in all, it was easy work and good fun, even if we were exhausted after spending nearly 12 hours with the kids each day. It was also extremely refreshing to hear almost nothing but English all week, and to have the kids genuinely trying to communicate with the teachers and (gasp!) each other in English. Oh yeah, and not having “hello!” shouted at me 200 times a day (I’m not exaggerating, and it gets old fast). While it’s been a bit difficult to return to the world of  “average” students, it was inspiring to spend a week with these kids and catch a glimpse of what Korea’s future has in store.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jeju Redux

I've been back in Korea for almost four weeks now, and I'm amazed at how strangely normal everything here seems. The trip home was fabulous, but I was actually pretty happy to get back to my apartment, my friends, and yes, even my job here. I may not miss Korea itself very much when I leave, but I sure will miss my people.

Anyhow, I can now highly recommend that potential Englishee teachers start with the February intake, as second semester is soooo much easier than first. Doing what I did - beginning with the easy semester and then being like, "Wait, what happened to all of those holidays and school events?" the next semester - is a little bit tough. Happily, I'm now doing a repeat of the easy road. And our first holiday was only a few weeks into the semester.

Apparently our first time in Jeju wasn't enough - not enough warm weather, not enough tromping around in nature, and not enough sleep (stupid roe deer). So Paul and I decided to go back again, with a few extra days in hand thanks to the Chuseok holiday. This time we rented a car instead of a scooter (protection from the rain and more time for nature tromping) and stayed in love motels instead of camping (more sleep - sort of).

Our main goal for this visit was to climb to the top of Hallasan - the tallest mountain South Korea. Having not yet even vanquished my local foe of Mudeung mountain, I was quite nervous, and rightfully so - hiking in Korea is brutal. Koreans don't believe in switchbacks, seem to love climbing over big rocks rather than smoother trail materials, and - because you couldn't possibly have gotten enough exercise just climbing to the top of a mountain - there are usually workout equipment stations along the way. I comforted myself with the guide books that say the trail we planned to take is much less steep than most hiking trails in Korea, and by the impressively large number of hikers who climb that very trail every day. Never mind that the estimated time to get up the mountain (just one way) is 4 hours, and that if you don't reach the half-way point by half past noon, you're not allowed to climb to the summit. Oh, and the other fact that I was (am) so very out of shape. Poor decision? I think so. Too stubborn to let the mountain get the best of me? Definitely.

On our second day on the island, goaded on by the pictures of that damn deer on the "Protect our local fauna!" billboards (we were not going to let that island or its fauna get the best of us again!), we ignored the forecast for a second day of rain and drove to the trail head. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, hideously early in the morning, it started pouring. And I don't mean cats and dogs. It was more like pumas and dingoes. We squinted through the rain-washed windshield at the vague outline of three hikers who were apparently going up the mountain anyway - full hiking gear in place but perhaps a few marbles shy of an ideal collection. A bit of a shower is one thing, but hiking in this deluge would have bordered on masochism. So we sighed, choked down our remaining roasted eggs, and drove back down the mountain to see some of the sights we'd missed the day before.

Ilchulbong from a distance
We climbed up the Seonsang Ilchulbong and took the ferry over to Udo and back. Encouraged by how much we were able to accomplish during the day (since we got up so early), we stashed our hiking provisions in the little love motel refrigerator (soggy kimbap, anyone?) and planned to get up ass early again the next day. Surely the weather would be better - if it rained like that again, the entire mountain might wash away and it'd be a moot point anyhow.

Come Monday morning, the sun was actually shining and the two intrepid hikers dragged themselves out of bed, trying not to think about the fact that our friends were all going to spend the day on the beach. We drove to the trail head - the sun was still shining. We decided to go for it. As did everyone else on the island, apparently. The trail was packed with hikers of all ages and abilities, from grandparents to small children. I'm not sure how those on the extremes of the age spectrum made it to the top and back, as we perfectly healthy young(ish) folks were struggling. Hard. The trail might not have been quite as steep as most others in Korea, but it was still no laughing matter. The beginning seemed easy enough, and we thought we were just going to breeze right up to the top, but maybe 100 kilometers in, things got rocky. Literally and figuratively. I'm not sure whose decision it was to "pave" large portions of the trail with big chunks of volcanic rock, but it was a bad one. Makes climbing very hard on the feet and ankles.

At the summit! And still standing!
Four and a half hours after we started, we had huffed, puffed, snacked, gasped, tripped (me), and hauled our way to the top. The top of Hallasan sits in what seems to be a perma-cloud, and a chilly rain was falling during the final portion of our ascent. It stopped when we reached the summit, though, and the cloud even cleared away long enough for us to get a few pictures of the volcanic crater-like hole in the top of the mountain (which does not, by the way, look anywhere near as cool as it does in photos that they use to advertise trips to Jeju). The glassy lake that I was expecting was more like a muddy puddle, and the summit was so crammed with other hikers, they were nearly all you could see besides the cloud that we were in. Oh yeah, and the crows lurking around, hoping I'd drop some of my lunch. Fat chance, birds. Even if I had dropped part of it, at that point I'd probably have fought them to get it back. We stayed there for about half an hour, then began our descent.

I did not expect that the way back down would be even more difficult than the climb up. Our legs were already fatigued, and the rain had made all of those rocks very slippery. It's a real miracle that I got down the mountain without breaking something critical, like my arm or face. But we did finally make it to the bottom, stumbled our way to the car, drove to Jeju City, and found a nicer-than-usual love motel with decent pillows to rest our exhausted, aching bodies.

It may have been painful, but as we flew home the following morning, I was quite happy to have finally climbed The Highest Mountain in Somewhere. Good thing, too, as that "happy feeling" stuck with me all week, making even the set of stairs to my classroom seem like an almost insurmountable obstacle. It's probably not something I'll do again, but at least I can tick it off the bucket list. Hike the highest mountain in Korea: Check!

Friday, August 12, 2011

And now I proudly present to you another list.

It occurs to me that I should probably rename this blog “Making Lists in Korea”, except this one was made in the U.S.A., so I can’t. I mean, I would, as I accept, and even own, the fact that I am a compulsive list-maker. It helps me arrange my life and understanding into an (often artificial) sense of order. But that's not what this post is about.

I’ve been back in the States, for a much-needed break from Asian life, for a couple of weeks now. From what I’ve seen so far, the city of Washington, DC still exists (YAY!), as do Northeast Tennessee and the Eastern Shore of Maryland (only slightly smaller ‘Yay!’). America seems to be getting on just as I left it, with perhaps a somewhat more dire case of the Crazy Congress Critters. I’ve actually been rather surprised at how fluidly I’ve re-taken to Western life, but there are still certain snags that I’ve run into. Below, an accounting of the Korean habits that have apparently become deeply ingrained in my psyche, for better or for worse.

Things that are normal, acceptable or necessary in Korea but that get you nowhere (or get you strange looks) in the U.S. of A.:

Expressions and phrases:
  • “Let’s get some fish water from the chicken lady.”
  • “Turn on the floor.”
  • “I’m going outside to get some bean fish.”
  • “Put it in the food bucket.”
  • “Have you checked the Cheon Won store?”
  • “Take a rest.”
  • Also, using various non-American words or phrases. Living in an international hodgepodge of an expat community, I’ve picked up many of my friends’ linguistic habits and use them interchangeably with my own. I never know what’s going to come out when I open my mouth these days. Unfortunately, it sounds a bit pretentious here at home.
Gestures and customs:
  • Bowing to…well…anyone and everyone. The grocery store clerks, in particular, think I’m really weird when I bow as I leave.
  • Smiling and/or waving at every foreigner I see. This has many problematic angles. For instance, I can’t possibly wave or smile at every single non-Asian person that I see on the street. Should I switch things up and start smiling and waving at everyone who looks like they might be Korean?
  • Using two hands to do things that really only require one hand, such as exchanging money or pouring drinks. In Korea, it’s polite. Again, kind of pretentious and a bit odd in the U.S.
  • Sorting trash into five different receptacles. This is unnecessary in the States, and often impossible. Even the hippy-est of families usually only have three: recyclable, not recyclable, and compost. I often find myself over-thinking the disposal of my waste here.
  • Tooth brushing in public. Most Americans feel that this daily hygiene routine is best done in private, and usually only twice a day. However, it is done shamelessly and extremely frequently in Korea, to the point where Korean teachers will actually make a phone call with toothpaste and a toothbrush hanging out of their mouths, and children walk down the hall in little cliques, brushing away. Though I sometimes find myself beginning to walk out of the bathroom to go talk to someone mid-brushing, I am not unhappy to have a break from all the foamy mouths. Ick.
  • Making major decisions with a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. In Korea, this game unquestionably and inarguably solves all disputes and brings fair resolution to difficult decisions. If you can win a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, you are clearly a winner in other areas of life and deserve to be treated as such (until you get beaten out next time). In America, well, it gets less respect than a coin toss. Also, yelling “가위 바위 보!” instead of “Rock, paper, scissors” doesn’t go over so well.

Even when I do things the “normal” American way, I find myself just a little more conscious of what I’m doing than I used to be. Much of it is, “Ah yes, this is how we do things in America.” But sometimes it’s, “Oops, wrong country.” At times, I even press my palms together in greeting as if I were in Thailand (despite that fact that I was only there for 10 days and that was 6 months ago). I’m sure I’ll be all confused again when I get back to Korea. Perhaps that’s the plight of living abroad for a while – interchangeable cultural hangovers.